I’ve never known anyone with a greater capacity for taking himself too seriously than my old friend Matt. Admittedly, we knew each other best when we were teenagers, a time in which melodrama is often the norm. But even allowing for the emotion-scrambling potential of coursing hormones, Matt was in a class by himself. He seemed to thrive on inventing a life that was far more compelling than our mundane, Midwestern reality. It was a tendency that often alienated him from our peers.
But then it was always something of an uphill struggle for Matt. He was an alien from the start, a rare transplant from the Carolinas with a strict, Southern father whom he addressed as Sir. Some time around third grade he appeared at our little Catholic school. He was very sociable and seemed to make friends quickly, and it wasn’t long before his mother was hosting our Cub Scout den meetings from the basement of their modest home just down the street. From the beginning, however, Matt spoke in a way that seemed aimed at eliciting our sympathy and admiration. He was candid about the heart surgery he had endured as a toddler, an apparently true event for which he would gladly provide evidence by displaying his scar. As time went on, he would embellish his medical history with statements to the effect that he “technically shouldn’t even be alive,” that he stoically faced greatly reduced longevity, and that he had been “clinically dead” for some matter of minutes.
If that were all there had been to it, I could easily have accepted his words as those of an ordinary kid who had survived a genuinely traumatic brush with death. Maybe he could have been a little less dramatic about it, but hey, he earned the right to explain his experience in whatever manner was beneficial to him. That was merely the beginning, however. As he became assimilated into our peer group, and perhaps because the level of attention that he initially drew began to wane, he told some stories that went beyond stretching credibility and into the realm of bizarre.
For example, Matt maintained that he had written an article that was published in Atlantic Monthly. This was an odd claim to make within our circle of friends, especially given that it was a title that was utterly unfamiliar to us. When pressed for details, Matt said only that he had written the piece under a pseudonym, and consequently he was unable to cash the payment check, which he subsequently destroyed for fear of his parents discovering his duplicity. He told that whopper with total conviction, as though he truly believed it himself, not a trace of irony to darken his cherubic countenance.
He also confided that back in his wilder days down south (you know, about the time he would have been in second grade), he managed to covertly design and construct a small yet operable atomic bomb. This is just the sort of extraordinary claim that invites all sorts of questions once one stops staring at its claimant like he is a total loony. Matt remained adamant, though, maintaining that he knew the device worked because he detonated it, destroying a small, abandoned house in the process.
Now, the great thing about spinning a tale like that is that nearly any other implausibility you utter comes across as comparatively credible. Matt certainly knew how to push the reality envelope. If he could make himself believe that he was a clandestine author and nuclear science prodigy, then in what fantastical personal attributes was he incapable of believing? As we aged through adolescence, this quality gave him an atypical dose of self-confidence and gravitas. He expected you to believe whatever he told you, because apparently he believed it himself.
Oddly, I knew all of this about Matt before we became close friends for a time. Sometime during our sophomore year, we discovered that we appreciated each other’s sense of humor and shared a common interest in songwriting. I had recently drained my bank account to buy a Casio keyboard, a miniature-key model that was part of the first great wave of mass-produced, low-quality digital instruments. Matt started hanging out at my house, and together we wrote a dozen or so original tunes. We called ourselves Plexus Tuxedo, a name I had conceived upon seeing an anatomical drawing of the solar plexus. We were very cool.
Matt had more academic knowledge about songwriting than I did, and he taught me some useful things about structure that helped me evolve from meandering compositions to tightly written tunes. He introduced me to the hook and the bridge (which he mistakenly referred to as “the offbeat”). He had a good voice, and he was unflaggingly enthusiastic. Unfortunately, he was also an undisciplined lyricist. His penchant for melodrama often got the better of him.
A few couplets for illustrative purposes:
Italian girls with dark black hair.
A blonde’s blue eyes convincingly stare.
A seagull screams in joyous glee.
Visions of waves will always be.
Like the weasel I evade them, stealing their bread and beer.
Someone save me. I fear they’re coming near.
And, finally, this earnest appeal:
Won’t you please listen
just ‘cause he speaks Russian?
Maybe his nation
doesn’t know salvation,
doesn’t mean he ain’t there.
Lyrics like that should have been sufficient to dissolve our songwriting partnership. But to our credit, we had fostered a mutually supportive relationship in which we could be free to create without fear of criticism. We might have eventually written something good, had not Matt’s tentative grip on reality begun to erode my patience. In between songwriting sessions, he boasted of the power of his mind over his body, claiming that he could place his downturned palm over an open flame while suffering neither pain nor burns. He offered unsolicited details of alleged intimacies with his girlfriend, whom he later caught “in bed with another man,” sparking a tale of confrontation that rivaled anything from the annals of daytime soap operas.
All of which was boorish, but what really rankled me was my increasing suspicion that not all of Matt’s ideas were original. He called one of his tunes The Grand Illusion, not a proprietary title by any means, but as it was already the title song of a well-known Styx album, I thought it was an odd choice. He had another number called Fooling Yourself, which happens to be the name of another song on The Grand Illusion. Matt dubbed one of our cowritten pieces Your Starter For…, a title that was absolutely nonsensical to me. At the time, I did not know that it was also the name of the lead track from Elton John’s Blue Moves album. Whenever I asked him to explain his title, he couldn’t. As I later learned, the second track on Elton’s album is Tonight, thus creating a witty titular connection between the first two songs. Must have gone over Matt’s head.
Eventually I was terminally embarrassed. Embarrassed of the songs we wrote. Embarrassed of our lack of talent. Embarrassed for myself when Matt looked me in the eyes and lied to me. Embarrassed for him that he was doing it. So I did my own bit of lying. I started avoiding his calls and making excuses when he did get through to me. It didn’t take long for him to get the message. We never had much to do with each other after that.
Matt certainly had many positive qualities, attributes that helped him become a successful adult. He was smart and funny, and he made me laugh a lot. He listened, too, probing my fears and frustrations and trying to help me improve my life just as much as he worked to improve his own. His unquestioning loyalty was his asset, his chronic dishonesty his Achilles’ heel. But the best I had to offer was my sincerity, and my own weakness was an intolerance for anything less from my friends. Every time I realized he had told me a lie, even though it was likely that he couldn’t help himself, I felt betrayed and took it personally.
Like I said, I’ve never known anyone with a greater capacity for taking himself too seriously than my old friend Matt. Well, maybe one guy…